A year ago I paid $35 to see a movie. Not to watch a movie, mind you: to see that it was made. Whether I watched it was up to me.
The movie was Veronica Mars, the big-screen continuation of a cult TV detective drama that ran for three seasons before the CW canceled it in 2007. In case you never saw it–more than likely, hence the cancellation–it was the story of a Neptune, Calif., teen (Kristen Bell) who becomes a private eye after her best friend’s murder and her own drugging and rape. Mature and darkly funny, it fused detective noir and high school drama to tell a class-conscious story of power, popularity and justice. It was a show whose heroes were outsiders and rejects; when it was itself finally rejected by the market, its fans felt the sting intensely.
Once upon a time, that would have been it, case closed. Veronica Mars was just one in a long line of series loved too hard by too few: My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, name your passion. It was a rite of pop-culture passage. You would give a show your heart, it wouldn’t be enough, and you would be left with nothing but the lesson that other people are idiots. Every once in a while a series might change networks and be briefly uncanceled–as Taxi was, for instance–but in general there was nothing that you, little fan, could do about it, because you did not own a TV network.
Today, TV shows die the way characters do on 24 (coming back in May!): unless you cut off the head and burn the body, they can always rise again. There are enough channels that someone else can pick up your show, as TBS did with ABC’s Cougar Town. It can be revived by popularity in DVD format or online, as were Family Guy and Futurama. It can be brought back by Netflix, as was Arrested Development.
And now, as happened with Veronica Mars, fans can bankroll a comeback themselves. Creator Rob Thomas had never let go of the idea of bringing back Veronica in the movies, but he couldn’t sell it in Hollywood. So he launched an appeal on the online fundraising site Kickstarter. If fans pitched in at least $2 million, the studio, Warner Bros., would distribute the film. (Disclosure: Warner Bros. will be Time’s sister company until Time Warner spins off publisher Time Inc. this year.)
Turns out Marshmallows (as Mars fans call themselves) had been saving their pennies. Over 91,000 backers contributed more than $5.7 million, getting pledge-drive-style incentives: a digital copy of the movie and a T-shirt at my paltry level, a speaking role in the movie for $10,000. The movie was shot in a month last summer and opens March 14 in theaters and for digital download.
After the fundraiser struck gold, there was a lot of talk about the precedent. On the one hand, it’s a shift in pop culture that empowers small but passionate fan bases. On the other, with stars like Zach Braff also passing the Kickstarter hat, this could become a way for studios to offload risk to moviegoers. (If Mars should happen to make a profit, Kickstarter backers will see no kickback.)
Worthy long-term issues all, but as someone who loved Veronica Mars the series, my worry when I walked into a press screening was, should I have been careful what I wished for? You can buy a sequel, but you can’t buy back time. Years have passed; a movie is not the same as a TV season. The Arrested Development revival was a fascinating narrative experiment, but different–darker, stranger, sadder–from the series that fans had come to love. Would giving the fans the power of resurrection become like the horror story “The Monkey’s Paw,” reanimating zombie shows that we should have let go, remembering them at their best?
The Mars movie doesn’t just acknowledge this issue–there’s a line about an artist who considers “restarting her moribund career with a Kickstarter campaign”–it smartly makes it a theme. Veronica, now a lawyer in New York City, is drawn back to Neptune and sleuthing when old flame Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) is accused of murder. It’s a fan-pleasing reunion–literally, a high school reunion is the movie’s centerpiece–but a complicated one, fraught with the question of whether it’s better to move on. Even the theme song, “We Used to Be Friends,” when we first hear it, is not the upbeat Dandy Warhols version of a decade ago but an oldie plaintively strummed by a street busker.
Can Veronica really go home again? I won’t spoil it for fans, but Veronica Mars pulls off the feat with charm, maybe because the series always had a bittersweet streak that lends itself to a story about growing pains. It’s not a full season, but it’ll do. A long time ago, we used to be friends. And for two hours, at least, we were again.
This appears in the March 24, 2014 issue of TIME.